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Showing posts from October, 2007

Wiki what?

The Internet is a wonderful thing, not least for students and academics from which its popularity began in the first place. But, and this question has been debated a lot over the past few years, isn't it just littered with inaccuracies and ill-informed opinion? Does the democracy of the information super-highway devalue educated, informed opinion by those who have painstakingly studied the subject(s)? The online 2.0 culture (user-generated) is definitely shaking up academics everywhere. Many are sick of seeing, cited in students' bibliographies, that fount of all sacred knowledge, Wikipedia. It would seem that many students are blissfully unaware that the entries could be written by anyone. They also think of pedia as being associated with authority, when in fact it is the wiki- they should set the alarm bells ringing. Wiki is, I think, a word from Haiwai which means quick to edit, or something. But, like much on Wikipedia, don't quote me on that. I have heard of …

Coffee and conspiracies

In Tehran authorities have clamped down on coffee shops in bookshops claiming that a 'mixing of the trades' was illegal. Are they being paranoid? If they are, are they right to be? If the chattering classes are planning and plotting won't they just find somewhere less conspicuous, like 'underground'?
Coffee shops and conspiracies have a much longer history than is immediately supposed. The first coffee shop was opened in London in 1652 by a Greek man. It was opened in Cornhil, slapbang in the middle of what would become the financial centre of Europe. The best conspiracies, then, emerged with the birth of the coffee shop - financial. Coffee shops in London became the bases of the capitalist society we enjoy and endure today. But the coffee shops were also to become bases of political dissent.
It makes sense.
If pubs are where dreams and plans are spoken of, buoyed up by alcohol-fuelled bravado, then those discussed in the coffee shop are done on a much mo…

The List

Ok, so, I slagged off the Leavisite notion of a definitive list of Great Books, but that doesn't mean I don't do my own. Yesterday, on the Guardian or somewhere else, can't remember, yet another other was giving a list of life changing/most influential during childhood/adolescence/whatever books. I sneered a little bit. Maybe it was his list. Anyway, it got me thinking, what ten books would I choose as the most influential thus far? 1. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson-Burnett - the rural idyll; secret hideaway where a child can hide from the mean adult world!2. Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton - I desperately wanted to be in that school instead of an economically challenged Roman Catholic technical girls school in inner-city Manchester!3. Alienated labour / The German Idelogy - Marx and Engels. Liberating and helped me shape and name some of the ideas and feelings I had in relation to the notion of personal freedom.4. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. Sha…

Amis/Eagleton...again

Theo Hobson has posted his opinions now on the Comment is Free site. He approaches the spat not from whether Amis was/is being racist or Islamaphobic, but on how honest one should be. I admire his attempt at trying to be as middle of the road as possible, thinking that, whilst Amis' comments were objectional, they were also laudable for its psychological honesty. However, Hobson claims that 'in certain contexts, you have no right to this sort of freedom of speech'. Amis, he claims, was naive it was such a sensitive issue. There is, in my ideal world, either free speech, or there isn't. I also believe that one has to deal with the reaction, often knee-jerk. If one cannot comment honestly just because something is deemed sensitive then nothing can ever be achieved. A few sores have to be prodded in order for any wound to improve. And sensitive is the wrong word here, it really is hyper-sensitive, why else would, once the issue is touched upon, so many people scr…

Prizes and politics

With the Booker prize winner announced this week the papers have provided the now seemingly obligatory counter-attack. Robert Harris blasted the Booker in the Evening Standard. However, yesterday's Guardian had Mark Lawson claiming that cultural prizes serve a valuable role in bringing art to a wider market. I am a bit undecided. Many of the complaints against cite irrelevance and being out of touch. Yet Lawson says that the attackers are missing one vital point: the purpose of the Man Booker is to promote the kind of work which audiences are reluctant to find otherwise. Fair point. Enright's book had sold little over 3000 copies on the eve of the prize, and much was made of the even lower sales figures of the other shortlisted titles (excluding McEwan, whose On Chesil Beach is now over 100,000). I am glad that there is a huge prize that realises that talent frequently does not equate with 'units shifted'. Lawson says that many miss the point that an originall…

Things fall apart

This week I've been reading, amongst other things, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. It is a surprising novel. I am reading it for my MA (Reading the Nation) in which questions of nationalism and post-colonialism inform the literature discussed. It is apt then that Achebe took the title from a line in a WB Yeats poem, The Second Calling. Yeats, being the Celtic revivalist and nationalist tjat he was, is also under the microscope. However, back to Achebe. This, his first novel, written in the mid-fifties has literally sold tens of millions of copies since. Yet, whilst on one hand it feels like a folktale in its simplicity, on the other it is like being dropped into a network of Nigerian villages without a guide. Achebe uses Igbo (silent g) words and refers to Igbo culture yet never steps aside to explain anything. You either get in there with the characters and their world or you don't. The incredible richness of the culture is a joy; yet the stern patriarchy is no…

A paltry paid neurosis

An article by Blake Morrison on GuardianUnlimted today draws attention to two recent surveys which found that 60 percent of writers earn less than 10k per year! And yet most people I know who aren't wise to most of writing's seeming aversion to the old sponduliks, seem to think that by writing one book all will be well thereafter. I think I've mentioned this in an earlier post, but this gap in perception and reality is fuelled by two things - the publishing industry's convenient reluctance not to correct the largely erroneous oft-reported six figure publishing deals. Such deals are achieved only by a handful of consistently achieving authors, and those who make the bestseller list once then disappear with each subsequent novel. And the second factor seems to be writers coyness at talking figures, through cultural inhibitions/etiquette and perhaps embarassment. It is true. Writing does indeed need to be some sort of neurosis! Or maybe it's just a combination …

A lot of writers haven't had proper jobs? Are you sure?

Today's London Evening Standard devotes an entire page to last night's Booker Prize winning announcement. David Sexton also gives a glowing review of Anne Enright's winning novel, The Gathering, and prophesying her place in great Irish literature. Enright also offers some information on herself, how, before she took up writing full-time she worked in television production in Dublin. It is this, she says, that drove her to a breakdown that led to writing, which, like Lessing, she says is a neurosis. However, she says that she is glad she had a 'proper job', and that many writers haven't had 'proper jobs'.
It's a comment I have to refute quite strongly.
The overwhelming majority of published and unpublished writers do have day jobs, or, 'proper' jobs. Does she imagine that many writers are just lounging about or only in pretend jobs? Or by 'proper' job does she mean working in TV? I'm perplexed!

Men need not say that motherhood need not spell the end of literature

Nicholas Shakespeare in today's London Evening Standard says that motherhood need not spell the end of literature. Which instantly has me asking - and how would you know, Mr. Shakespeare? The article refers to how his other half wants to write a book before being 'with child', because once she does her creativity may well be zapped. There is certainly something in her proposition - which of the more well-known female writers have had children? The Brontes? No. Jane Austen? No. Virginia Woolf? No. There are plenty more that can be named in favour of this argument. However, it should also be noted that many of those women didn't live beyond child-bearing age, and of those that did, like Wolf, were already battling with mental health issues. The fact that many of these women chose to write back then can also be seen as their mark of unconventionality - the last thing some of them wanted to do was fall into type just because it was expected. Nicholas Shakespeare then draws…

I'm not prejudiced. I hate everyone.

The Times yesterday continued exploring the Eagleton/Amis spat. It focussed on comments made by Eagleton in Cheltenham that whilst his grandfather was a terrible out and out racist, his father less so, and now he gets the odd racist 'twinge'. No doubt it will have Eagleton rubbing his hands in glee, singing 'I told you so, didn't I say he was a racist!' But, whilst I have a lot of respect for Eagleton, he needs to perform his own thinking on his own... well, thinking. You see, Eagleton has, by branding Amis a racist in the vein of a BNP thug, fallen into that thuggish black and white thinking, pardon the pun. Actually, the pun is more than apt in this case. Eagleton needs to remember that he is from a deeply dialectical school of thought - in that you take note of one side, then the other, then everything in between in order to reach a new conclusion, or at least a more enlightened one. I have to say that Amis' comments are incredibly refreshing because …

Translating widdershins?

I have never really thought about the role of publishing translator, mainly because I speak no other languages; still trying to learn this one! When it has crossed the radar, however, like when I read amazing 'foreign fiction' like the award winning Per Petersson's Out Stealing Horses, it suddenly ocurred to me what a pain in the arse it must be for the translator of, say, Finnegans Wake by Joyce, or even Ridley Walker by Russell Hoban. Not that Petersson's book is of that linguistic ilk, it isn't, it's just a very poignant story. But in the cases of such books in translation what is Spanish/Swedish/German for euwwggghh!?
Maybe it is simpler in that who can verify the exact definitions when they may not even exist?
I am thinking about this now as my publisher has just returned from the Frankfurt Book Fair where lots of countries make deals to publish other countries books. And, if I'm lucky enough, could one day see my soon to be novel, A Clockwork App…

The future of books

The future of... Question, when in literary contexts, usually relates to the novel. Will the novel be around in ten, twenty years time? The novel is quite frequently doomed by those whom the medium has served quite well but are coming to the winter of their writing careers/lives, like the recently prophesying Phillip Roth. Yet it goes on. Every few years it becomes reinvigorated and new attention is shone on it. Mass market fiction is, at the moment in quite a healthy state of affairs. It seems. Hasn't it now got the Richard and Judy show behind it - the equivalent of the Oprah Book Club? Or is this just high capitalism 'infecting' the noble art of story-telling and the state of the novel is really in quite a dire state?
However it is viewed, a recent article, penned from the Frankfurt Book Fair, asked what those attendees, book industry professionals all, thought of the future of the book. Most said it would, indeed, still be with us in fifty years time. The bo…

Indie good for lit...

The Independent always has a particular focus on literature on Fridays - as it comes with the Arts & Books Review But today it continues its coverage of the 'spat' between Eagleton v Amis, Boyd Tonkin has a large feature on Nobel Prize Winner, Doris Lessing (long long overdue by all accounts) and even Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged' is featured in the World section under 'The Guru of Greed'.

Dysfunctional families... yeah!

Rachel Seiffert has given her list of top ten books on 'troubled families'. Well, we all have them - some more than most. I'm currently using my own as the basis of what is turning into a sprawling out-of-control epic in The Carousel and, if it is published, will probably have every single member of my family draggint me to court. And I'm from a big family. Nah. They wouldn't do that. I hope. I used to read loads of biography when I was growing up. Why? Because it was frequently the only type of book, if picked properly, that I could find some identification with. Don't get me wrong, the novel does dysfunction, but it's a certain type of dysfunction, isn't it. There aren't too many Trainspotting's around. The novel does dysfunction of the chattering classes very well. But what of everything else? It's no wonder programmes on TV, like Shameless, has done so well. It's not being covered in the novel!

Why write and how?

It is a frequently asked question - from others and from the writer herself.  Why do you write - and how?  For me it is an itch that, even when an idea is put onto paper, is still there, and only when that idea is fleshed out into a first draft has the itch been satisfied, albeit temporarily.  The Times 2 section in today's paper have put together a great feature on this very issue, asking a bunch of successful writers, which coincides with the Times Cheltenham Literary Festival.  Robert Harris says that, for him, it is a vocation; that is, he would write regardless of whether he was paid or not, labelling it, like my itch, an impulse.  Douglas Coupland says his relationship with writing is 'so tangled up with visual art'.  He says that he can't imagine not doing it and that it is probably the only disciplined part of his life.  I hate to think what the rest of his life is like!  Pat Barker claims to write for the characters, seeing them as separate entities, although …

Literary eras

A new blog on Guardian Online today was on what literary would you travel to if you could? The first thing that sprang to my mind was to visit the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; first to check up on Aphra Behn, then to go and hang out with Daniel Defoe for a while - see how he coped having to write whilst constantly dodging debt collectors before joining him on his schlep up and down the UK for his non-fiction book. It was quite surprising that very few said the Victorian era, but it was a fairly serious time that wreaked of too much didactism. The eighteenth century, I imagine, was much cheekier and fun-loving, with all those Moll Flanders and Roxannes! I know that most fiction of the 18c claimed to be a moral lesson, but it was, in my opinion, ladled heavily in irony - a bit tongue in cheek. All of this literary time-travel came as an effective avoidance tactic. I caught what I thought was just a cold, but which actually felt like the flu and have spent most of the…

Whose 'Great Tradition'?

If I could send something from the present into the literary past it would be a shrink to the mind of F R Leavis (amongst others). The man was obsessed with Jane Austen and her place on his throne as the monarch of the Great Tradition of the 'English Novel'. I hang those words from the fingertips because he also allows Henry James and Joseph Conrad to be her courtiers in this faraway palace. The former was American (whatever that is/was) and the latter, Polish. He also grants the role of lady-in-waiting to George Eliot. I have been quite verbose in earlier posts about Austen - i.e. She wasn't fit to clean the boots of the Brontes! If we can thank Austen for any tradition it is that of the silly, the trifling, the middling; her tradition leads onto nought more than Mills and Boon, and chick-lit. I think it may have been different if Aphra Behn had taken the title - as mother of the novel (1688) she was considered a slut for earning a living by the pen in her own life…

Eagleton -v- Amis

I grew up in the notorious inner-city areas that surround the main campus of Manchester University. In fact, spent a lot of time, when I should have been at school, hanging round various places on Oxford Rd: The Manchester Museum, the Holy Name Church, the Phoenix, the student cafes - this little district served as a haven of possibility, (and offered some shelter from Manchester rain) whilst I hid from school for various reasons. So it is with great interest that I read of Eagleton's attack, in the revised introduction of a second edition of his book, Ideology, on Martin Amis. Amis has just begun to teach an MA in creative writing there, whereas Terry Eagleton is the Professor of Cultural Theory. The Guardian online chattering classes have been 'discussing' it all with glee.
I have learnt a lot not just from Eagleton's work, but also his life, as we are from similar backgrounds. He is a working class Manc of Irish stock. I have learnt a lot from Amis' work too. …

Re-learning Leavis

To be called a Leavisite when it comes to literature can often be pejorative. When I first came across F R Leavis during the first year of my degree I thought he was too full of himself; he wanted literature and all things literary to be held in the hands of the few, and only those novelists who he deemed 'of moral seriousness' would, and should make the canon to be taught. This really shaped the teaching of literature right until not so long ago, especially in schools. However, re-reading him, which I had to do for the aptly titled reading and re-reading MA module I softened towards him (there goes Barthes theory 'the death of the author' - as soon as I delve into biogs I review it all differently). His essay 'mass civilization and minority culture' and 'The Great Tradition' and many others are indeed didactic; prescriptive. But he also said that, in the thirties, forties onwards people were beginning to know a little about lots of things and mast…

A City's Literature

Five 'mini' books are to be published on Liverpool as it gears up to take on the mantle of City of Culture next year. Scousers have always been incredibly sentimental when it comes to their city, just think of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' - which has always reminded me of the way Irish immigrants used to be about 'the green green grass of home' when they came over here to work - like my dad, forever wistful but not really wanting to return. They have always clung onto the Beatles for dear life, too. Anyway. I was thinking, what books could tell the story of each place? It really continues on, also, from my previous post on 'what is a nation?' in which I asked, if you identify a specific nation that you are from, what is it's literature? For the West Country there would be no contest - Thomas Hardy, and even Daphne Du Maurier, even though she wasn't actually a native, though she spent a lot of time there. When one thinks of Wales it's …

The National Writer

Is there such a thing as a national writer? And, by nation, do we mean a country, a kingdom, a continent, county even? Samuel Beckett famously said that he would rather live in Paris in wartime than Ireland in peacetime - and he did; but could the Irish really ever claim him as one of their national writers? France remain incredibly proud of him and claim him as an 'international' writer. But what of Joseph Conrad? He wrote great English literature - yet he was Polish. And writers like Orhan Pamuk are almost disowned by their country (Turkey) whilst here Shakespeare IS England - his birthday and death day falling on that most patriotic day in the English calender, St. George's Day, even though there is no evidence to back this up - it is certainly more convenient in Shakespeare TM being associated with the national saint's day! I have been reading Renan's What is a Nation, a lecture given at the Sorbonne in 1882. Renan asks whether religion, geography, or langu…

The Pyramid of Influence

If asked to name 'highly original' works of fiction you'd probably go for the more seemingly obscure narratives that seem to be trail blazers.George Orwell's 1984 is a good example.However, it was 'heavily influenced by Yevgeny Zamyatin's, We (1920) the story of a futuristic dystopia which prophesies Stalinism and the failure of the revolution. A rigid society people are referred to only as numbers.When two lovers have 'irrational' urges the State becomes hostile.It is also written in an experimental style.Unsurprisingly, the novel was actually reviewed by Orwell.You may also mention Anthony Burgess as a highly original author, yet he was well known for being overly influenced by others; Orwell being one of them.Burgess published 1985 in 1976, which, obviously, was heavily influenced by Orwell.Zadie Smith has also been more open about her 'hommage' to E M Forster by her use of elements of Howard's End for her third novel, On Beauty.She is al…

Are blogs little more than blags?

It would seem the blog is well-suited to the book, or at least discussions, ruminations and just opinions (well versed or otherwise). As ever The Guardian has posted a blog (what else) on the fast growth of the lit-blog, which also refers to a new book out on... lit-blogs. A book about a blog, on blogs about books. It's all getting a bit too meta-blog/book. Perhaps we can rename the lit-blog as blook, or a blok, even bloog? Suggestions on an e-card. I often wonder whether it is merely a tool for self-promotion; whether it is just to be heard, and be a part of the blogosphere in general, or whether it really is just to opine on all things literary. The problem in many quarters, not just in the 'literary' corner, is that many are crying foul at this new e-democracy - 'it's just a bunch of amateurs' 'self-obsessed' 'self-propagating' 'know next to nothing about' ...... whatever subject they're bloggng on. To me it shows just how …